The first lean, brown boatman who touched his knee and offered his bari for hire, Kenkenes patronized. The slave had eased his load into the boat and Kenkenes was on the point of embarking when a four-oared bari, which had passed them like the wind a moment before, put about several rods above them and returned to the group on shore.
A bent and withered servitor was standing in the bow of the boat, wildly gesticulating, as if he feared Kenkenes would insist on pulling away despite his efforts. The young man recognized the servant of Snofru, old Ranas.
The large bari was beached and the servitor alighted with agility and, beckoning to Kenkenes, took him aside.
"There has been an error -- a grave error, concerning the message," the old man began in excitement; "but thou art in no wise at fault. Yet mayhap thou canst aid us in unraveling the tangle. See!"
He displayed the linen-wrapped roll, the covering split where Snofru had opened it, but the wavering hieratic characters of the address in Loi's hand, still intact.
When the young sculptor had gazed, the old servant nervously undid the roll, and showed within a letter to the commander over Pa-Ramesu, written in the strong epistolary symbols of the royal scribe.
Kenkenes frowned with vexation. Innocent and efficient though he had been, the miscarriage of his mission stung him nevertheless. The blunder was not long a mystery to him.
Summoning all the patience at his command, he recounted the events in the apartments of the ancient hierarch of Amen.
"There were two Scrolls," he explained; "one to the Servant of Ra at On, the other to Atsu. The holy father sealed them both before he addressed them and confused the directions. The one which I should have brought to thine august master, hath gone to the taskmaster over Pa-Ramesu."
"Thou madest all speed?" the servant demanded, trembling with eagerness.
"A half-day's journey less than the usual time I made in returning. I doubt much, if the messenger with the other scroll hath passed Memphis yet, since he may not have been despatched in such hot haste. Furthermore, because of the festivities in Tape, it would have been well-nigh impossible for him to hire a boat until the next day."
This information kindled a light of hope on the old servant's face.
"Thou givest me life again," he exclaimed. "The blessings of Ra be upon thee!"
Without further words he ran back to the boat, and the last Kenkenes saw of him, he was frantically urging his boatmen to greater speed, back to On.
Kenkenes had come to the Nile that morning, rejoicing in the propitiousness of his opportunity. Mentu was at that moment in On, seeing to the decoration of the second obelisk reared by Meneptah to the sun. The great artist had prepared to be absent a month, and had left no work for his son to do. But the coming of Ranas with the news of his mission's failure had filled Kenkenes with angry discomfiture.
He dismissed his slave and rowed down-stream toward Masaarah.
As he approached the abandoned wharf, a glance showed him that some effort toward restoring it had been made. The overgrowth of vines had been cut away and the level of the top had been raised by several fragments of rough stone.
The tracks of heavy sledges had crushed the young grain across the field toward the cliffs.
Kenkenes stood up and looked toward the terraced front of the hills, in which were the quarries.
There were dust, smoke, stir and moving figures.
The stone-pits were active again after the lapse of half a century.
"By the grace of the mutable Hathors," the young man muttered as he dropped back into his seat, "my father may yet decorate a temple to Set, but by the same favor, it seems that I shall be snatched from the brink of a sacrilege."
He permitted his boat to drift while he contemplated his predicament. Suddenly he smote his hands together.
"Grant me pardon, ye Seven Sisters!" he exclaimed.
"I misread your decree. Ye have but covered my tracks toward transgression."
After a little thought he resumed his felicitations.
"Who of Memphis will think I come to Masaarah, save to look after the taking out of stone? Is it not part of my craft? Nay, but I shall make offering in the temple for this. And need any of these unhappy creatures in Masaarah see me except as it pleases me to show myself?"
He seized his oars and rowed down the river another furlong. Leaving the craft fixed in the tangle of herbage at the water's edge, he shouldered his cargo and crossed the narrow plain to the cliffs below Masaarah. There he made a difficult ascent of the fronts facing the Nile and reached his block of stone without approaching the hamlet of laborers.
Depositing his burden, he set forth to reconnoiter. He descended again into the Nile valley by the way he had come and wandered toward the mouth of the gorge. From a little distance he looked upon a scene of great activity. In the shadow of one of the dilapidated hovels, four humped oxen stood, their heavy harness still hanging upon them, though the sledges they drew, covered with stone dust and broken pieces, were some distance away from them. A company of half a score of children were ascending in single file, along a slanting plane of planks, into the hollow in the cliff upon which work had been renewed. Along the rock-wall ahead of them a scaffold had been erected and here were men drilling holes in the stone, or driving wooden wedges into the holes already made, or pouring water on the wedges as the skins the children bore were passed up to them.
Kenkenes picked his way through the debris of sticks, stones, dust and cast-off water-skins, and serenely disregarding the stare of the laborers, went up to the edge of the stone-pit and watched the work with interest. A constant stream of broken stone rattled down under the scaffold and long runlets of water fed an ever increasing pool in the depression before the cliff. A single slab of irregular dimensions lay on the sand at the base of a wooden chute, down which it had descended from the hollow in the cliff the evening before. The cavity it left bade fair to enlarge by nightfall, for the swelling wedges were rending another slab from its bedding with loud reports and the sudden etching of fissures.
The young sculptor noted with some wonder that the laborers were Israelites.
After a time Kenkenes turned away and addressed one of the bearded men at that moment, ascending the wooden plane.
"What do ye here?" he asked.
The man answered in unready Egyptian, but, for an inferior, in a manner curiously collected.
"The Pharaoh addeth to the burden of the chosen people. We dig stone for a temple to the war-god."
"The chosen people!" Kenkenes repeated inquiringly.
"The children of Israel," the Hebrew explained. Kenkenes lifted one eyebrow quizzically and went his way. As he leaped up into the gorge he vaguely realized that he had seen no trace of an encampment near the hamlet, which he knew to be uninhabitable.
"Of a truth, the chosen people seem to follow me of late," he said to himself as he rambled up the valley. "Meneptah must have scattered them out of Goshen into all the corners of Egypt."
As he turned the last winding of the gorge he came upon a cluster of some threescore tents, spread over the level pocket at the valley's end. Almost against the northern wall the house of the commander had been built to receive the earliest shadow of the afternoon. The military standard was raised upon its roof and a scribe, making entries on a roll of linen, sat cross-legged on a mat before the door. In one of the narrow ways between the tents an old woman, very bowed and voluminously clad, prepared a great hamper of lentils and another of papyrus root for the noonday meal. One or two children sitting on the earth beside her rendered her assistance, and a third kept the turf fire glowing under a huge bubbling caldron. Kenkenes passed through the camp by this narrow way and paused to look with much curiosity at the ancient Israelite. Never had he seen any old person so active or a slave so wrapped in covering. He hoped she would lift her head that he might see her face; and even as he wished, she pierced him with a look which, from her midnight eyes, seemed like lightning from a thunder-cloud.
"Gods!" he exclaimed as he retreated up the slope behind the camp. And a moment later he continued his soliloquy in a voice that struggled between mirth and amazement: "Have I never seen an Israelite until I beheld these twain, the Lady Miriam and that bent dart of lightning in the valley? If these be Israelites I never saw one before. If those cowed shepherds that have strayed now and again out of Goshen be Hebrews, then these are not. And the gods shield me from the disfavor of them, be they slaves or sibyls!"
When he reached his block of stone he unrolled his load of equipments and set to work without delay. He was remote from any possible interruption from Memphis, and the slaves in the gorge and in the stone-pits had no opportunity to come upon his sacrilege in idle hours. They would be held like prisoners within the limits of the quarries. His sense of security had been strengthened by the renewed activities in Masaarah.
With a shovel of tamarisk he cleared the slab of its drift of sand. He found that the block broadened at the base and was separate from the sheet of rock on which it stood. Among his supplies was a roll of reed matting, and with this cut into proper lengths, he carpeted a considerable space about the block. Precaution rather than luxury had prompted this procedure, since the chipped stone falling on the covering could be carried cleanly and at once from the spot.
Pausing long enough to eat a thin slice of white bread and gazelle-meat, and to drink a draft from the porous and ever cooling water bottle, he turned to the protection and concealment of his statue.
The place was strewn with tolerably regular fragments, and the building of a segment of wall to the north at the edge of the matting required more time than strength or skill. He built solidly against the penetrative sand, and as high as his head. The early afternoon blazed upon him and passed into the mellower hours of the later day before he had finished. He hid his shovel and two cylindrical billets of wood, such as were used to roll great weights, under the edge of his reed carpet, and his preparations were complete. He wiped his brow, congratulating himself on the snugness of his retreat and the auspicious beginning of his transgression.
Weary and happy, he rowed himself back to Memphis and slept soundly on the eve of a great offense against the laws of Egypt.
But the next day, when the young sculptor faced the moment of actual creation, he realized that his goddess must take form from an unembodied idea. The ritual had been his guide before, and his genius, set free to soar as it would, fluttered wildly without direction. His visions were troubled with glamours of the old conventional forms; his idea tantalized him with glimpses of its perfect self too fleeting for him to grasp. The sensation was not new to him. During his maturer years he had tried to remember his mother's face with the same yearning and heart-hurting disappointment. But this time he groped after attributes which should shape the features -- he had spirit, not form, in mind; and the odds against which his unguided genius must battle were too heroic for it to succeed without aid. The young sculptor realized that he was in need of a model. Stoically, he admitted that such a thing was as impossible as it was indispensable. It seemed that he had met complete bafflement.
He took up his tools and returned to Memphis. But each succeeding morning found him in the desert again, desperately hopeful -- each succeeding evening, in the city disheartened and silent.
So it followed for several days.
On the sixth of January the festival in honor of the return of Isis from Phenicia was celebrated in Memphis. Kenkenes left the revel in mid-afternoon and crossed the Nile to the hills. He found no content away from his block of stone -- no happiness before it. But he wandered back to the seclusion of the niche that he might be moody and sad of eye in all security.
The stone-pits were deserted. The festivities in Memphis had extended their holiday to the dreary camp at Masaarah. Kenkenes climbed up to his retreat and remained there only a little time. The unhewn rock mocked him.
He descended through the gorge and found that the Hebrews were but nominally idle. A rope-walk had been constructed and the men were twisting cables of tough fiber. The Egyptians lounged in the long shadows of the late afternoon and directed the work with no effort and little concern. The young sculptor overlooked the scene as long as it interested him and continued down the valley toward the Nile.
Presently a little company of Hebrew children approached, their bare feet making velvety sounds in the silence of the ravine. Each balanced a skin of water on his head. The little line obsequiously curved outward to let the nobleman pass, and one by one the sturdy children turned their luminous eyes up to him, some with a flash of white teeth, some with a downward dip of a bashful head. One of them disengaged a hand from his burden and swept a tangle of moist black curls away from his eyes. The sun of the desert had not penetrated that pretty thatch and the forehead was as fair as a lotus flower.
Kenkenes caught himself looking sharply at each face as he passed, for it contained somewhat of that for which he sought. As he walked along looking after them he became aware that some one was near him, He turned his head and stopped in his tracks.
He confronted his idea embodied -- Athor, the Golden!
It was an Israelitish maiden, barely sixteen years old, but in all his life he had never looked upon such beauty. He had gazed with pleased eyes on the slender blush-tinted throats and wrists of the Egyptian beauties, but never had he beheld such whiteness of flesh as this. He had sunk himself in the depths of the dusky, amorous eyes of high-born women of Memphis, but here were fathomless profundities of azure that abashed the heavens. He had been very near to loveliest hair of Egypt, so close that its odorous filaments had blown across his face and his artist senses had been caught and tangled in its ebon sorcery. But down each side this broad brow was a rippling wave of gold, over each shoulder a heavy braid of gold that fell, straightened by its own weight, a span below the waist. The winds of the desert had roughened it and the bright threads made a nimbus about the head. Its glory overreached his senses and besieged his soul. Here was not witchery, but exaltation.
Enraptured with her beauty, her perfect fulfilment of his needs, he realized last the unlovely features of her presence. She balanced a heavy water pitcher on her head and wore a rough surplice, more decorous than the dress of the average bondwoman, but the habit of a slave, nevertheless. He had halted directly in her path, and after a moment's hesitancy she passed around him and went on.
Immediately Kenkenes recovered himself and with a few steps overtook her. Without ceremony he transferred the heavy pitcher to his own shoulder. The girl turned her perfect face, full of amazement, to him, and a wave of color dyed it swiftly.
"Thy burden is heavy, maiden," was all he said.
The bulk of the jar on the farther shoulder made it necessary for him to turn his face toward her, but she was uneasy under the intent gaze of his level black eyes. She dropped behind him, but he slackened his pace and kept beside her. For the moment he was no longer the man of pulse and susceptibility but the artist. Therefore her thoughts and sensations were apart from his concern. The unfamiliar perfection of the Semitic countenance bewildered him. He took up his panegyric. Never was a mortal countenance so near divine. And the sumptuousness of her figure -- its faultless curves and lines, its lissome roundness, its young grace, the beauty of arm and neck and ankle! Ah! never did anything entirely earthly dwell in so fair, so splendid a form.
As they neared the camp the girl spoke to him for the first time. He recognized in her voice the same serene tone he had noted in his talk with the Hebrew some days before.
"Give me my burden now," she said. "Thou hast affronted thy rank for me, and I thank thee many times."
The sculptor paused and for a moment stood embarrassed. It went sorely against his gallantry to lay the burden again upon her and he said as much.
"Nay, Egypt has no qualms against loading the Hebrew," she said quietly. "Wouldst thou put thy nation to shame?"
Kenkenes opened his eyes in some astonishment.
"Now am I even more loath," he declared. "What art thou called?"
"It hath an intrepid sound, but Athor would become thee better. Now I am a sculptor from the city, come to study thy women for a frieze," he continued unblushingly, "and I would go no farther in my search. Rachel repeated will be beauty multiplied. Let me see thee once in a while, -- to-morrow."
A sudden flush swept over her face and her eyes darkened.
"It shall not keep thee from thy labor," he added persuasively.
The color deepened and she made a motion of dissent.
"Nay! thou dost not refuse me!" he exclaimed, his astonishment evident in his voice.
"Of a surety," she replied. "Give me my burden, I pray thee."
Dumb with amazement, too genuine to contain any anger, Kenkenes obeyed. As she went up the shady gorge, walking unsteadily under the heavy pitcher, he stood looking after her in eloquent silence.
And in eloquent silence he turned at last and continued down the valley. There was nothing to be said. His appreciation of his own discomfiture was too large for any expression.
In a few steps he met the short captain who governed the quarries. Kenkenes guessed his office by his dress. He was adorned in festal trappings, for he had spent most of the day in revel across the Nile.
"Dost thou know Rachel, the Israelitish maiden?" Kenkenes asked, planting himself in the man's way.
"The yellow-haired Judahite?" the man inquired, a little surprised.
"Even so," was the reply.
The soldier nodded.
"Look to it that she is put to light labor," the sculptor continued, gazing loftily down into the narrow eyes. The soldier squared off and inspected the nobleman. It did not take him long to acknowledge the young sculptor's right to command.
"It does not pay to be tender with an Israelite," the man answered sourly.
Kenkenes thrust his hand into the folds of his tunic over his breast and, drawing forth a number of golden rings strung on a cord, jingled them musically.
The soldier grinned.
"That will coax a man out of his dearest prejudice. I will put her over the children."
Kenkenes dropped the money into the man's palm.
"I shall have an eye to thee," he said warningly. "Cheat me not."
He went his way. The incident restored to him the power of speech.
"Now, by Horus," he began, "am I to be denied by an Israelite that which the favoring Hathors designed I should have? Not while the arts of strategy abide within me. The children, I take it, will come here with the water," he cogitated, stamping upon the wet and deserted ledge which he had reached, "and here will she be, also."
He raised his eyes to the ragged line of rocks topping the northern wall of the gorge.
"I shall perch myself there like a sacred hawk and filch her likeness. Nay, now that I come to ponder on it, it is doubtless better that she know naught about it. She might drop certain things to the Egyptians hereabout that would lead to mine undoing. The gods are with me, of a truth."
He descended into the larger valley and went singing toward the Nile.